Does This Spell the Decline For Aluminum Windows?

Only about once in a generation does a revolutionary new product development come along to successfully challenge all others that have gone before it – and to provide so many additional benefits over their predecessors as to render them essentially obsoleste from day one.

Examples would be steel hulled ships instead of timber in the early 20th Century or the jet engine instead of propeller driven in the 1950's. More modest examples would be music cassettes replacing gramophone records in the 1970's, to be replaced them by CD's in the 1990's. Technology is unstoppable!

Plastic materials were first invented in 1904 but by the 1940's these durable thermosetting resins had been blended with glass fibers for phenomenal extra strength and then molded to be used for the hulls of fast, light weight, motor torpedo boats (MTBs) to devastating effect during WW2, recording periods of over 40 mph. Impossible with the dead weight of steel hulls.

The same technology is still used today for RNLI Lifeboats to give maximum strength, lightness and speed. Perhaps surprisingly, the critically important nose cone on NASAs Space Shuttle comes from the same basic material.
These incredibly strong and durable composite compounds are Fiber Reinforced Polymers (FRPs) and until 1990's could only be produced manually in a mold (hand laid) or in a high pressure flat press to make sheets for, say, high performance composite door skins.

Around the same time, aluminum was first created and widt used in aircraft design and for building products like windows, curtain walling, display equipment, etc. The lesser demanding window applications for housing that generally require smaller windows than offices were previously replaced by thermoplastic PVC but this material does not have the inherent strength to challenge aluminum in larger and more demanding applications.

Thus PVC windows grow to dominate the housing market, while aluminum became the dominant supplier to the non-housing commercial market.
This continued for 30 years, until now.

Two things occurred towards the end of the 20th Century to upset this status quo – namely, a) Climate Change and b) The development of 'Pultrusion', a continuous manufacturing process for FRP.

a) Climate Change – Gradual recognition of the causes and consequences of Climate Change has led to a succession of new legislation to reduce carbon emissions through better insulation of buildings and by developing more sustainable building practices and materials.

This has caused many specifiers to become dissatisfied with their historically traditional materials – and who are now seeking a more benign and longer lasting alternative.

Areas of discontent (supported by Greenpeace and Good Homes Alliance) are –
* Human toxicity and greenhouse gases from PVCU
* Tropical rainforest destruction and continuous maintenance of Timber
* High embodied energy and poor insulation properties of aluminum.

Clients and specifiers, now, are increasingly demanding higher sustainability standards through increased levels of performance under BREEAM and Code for Sustainable Homes. Carbon neutral construction is also being mooted.
One of the single most important criteria in these higher standards is 'thermal insulation'. 47% of the entire carbon emissions from UK comes from fossil fuel replacement of the heat lost from all buildings.

Windows are one of the weakest points of insulation in all buildings, accounting for over 25% of that heat loss, a significant proportion of the total UK carbon footprint.

The Achilles heel for a window's thermal performance is not the glass – but the frame that holds it.

b) Pultrusion – Enabling GRP to be made commercially in long continuous lengths for window profiles was a significant breakthrough in Plastics development in the 1980/90's in North America, which was introduced to UK in early 2000s. Pultrusion enabled window profiles to be made just like Aluminum or PVC but requiring no metal reinforcement for strength.

For the first time the advantages of FRP Fiberglass could be brought to bear on this specific product sector at the very time that it was coming under serious review.

The Consequences: Aluminum is unable to achieve U values ​​below about 1.8, whilst far lower (1.2) is now being requested more and more by those driving for higher results under BREEAM This is due to the very low insulation capabilities of Aluminum (ironically, it is an excellent conductor), as well as to its notoriously high embodied energy from the high temperature manufacturing process. Also, it is recognized that aluminum is unacceptable to a marine salt / sea spray environment which corrodes exposed aluminum. Powder coating reduces this effect until scratched or damaged but which can not then be successfully repaired. Therefore the estimated service life is only 20 – 25 years.

Architects are now, therefore, seeking a more sustainable, longer complaining, better insulating alternative.

Whereas GRP Fibreglass as a material has consistently lower U values; is imperfect to the weather and salt / sea spray; is stronger than steel; will not deform like aluminum; requires no maintenance; can be repaired and repainted if necessary; is 23% recycled; can be recycled on disposal; has pleasing slender sightlines; comes in any RAL color and is simply priced to aluminum while providing far better value and peace of mind for the client.

In summary: –
* Service life: 50 – 75 years is double that of any other low maintenance material.
* Thermal efficiency: U values ​​of 0.9 are possible which is half that of aluminum.
* Strength: Twice the strength to weight ratio of steel, can not deform like aluminum.
* Maintenance: Zero maintenance is required the applied color is for aesthetics only.
* Sustainability: Achieves a potential 3 ex extra credits in any BREEAM assessment.

The final indicator as to the new supremacy of FRP composites over aluminum is in the Aeronautical Industry, where aluminum has previously dominated for 60 years.
Breaking with this tradition for the first time, the new Boeing 787 'Dream-liner' uses FRP nano-composites for 94% of the wings and fuselage. This provides reduced weight, therefore better fuel economy and lower carbon emissions, plus improved strength and durability, according to Russell Maquire, Technical Vice President, Boeing Company Inc.

Now who wouldgue with that ?!